Scents and sensibilities
I had a great arts-criticism experience recently--discovering a work of criticism that wasn't just a terrific piece of writing but opened my eyes to something I'd never really considered as an art form before. I stumbled onto Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's fat Penguin paperback Perfumes: The A-Z Guide on a display rack at Powell's, idly opened it to a random page, cracked up laughing after two sentences, opened it to a few more random pages, saw something smart or hilarious or both on each of those pages, and realized I had to buy it.
I know nothing at all about perfume, but I know sharp critical writing when I see it. Turin and Sanchez's brief reviews of 1800+ scents (which begin with one to five stars, one to four dollar signs and a two-word description) are amusingly vicious about the ones they hate, amusingly effusive about the ones they love, and just plain amusing about the rest, and they're also so effectively informative and descriptive that I could basically get a sense of what they were talking about most of the time, despite having absolutely no grounding in their technical terms. (They do include a brief glossary in the back of the book, and some general overviews of perfume history and masculine and feminine perfumes up front.)
Before long, I was calling up friends to share my favorite bits--it felt like I was 18 and discovering Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide all over again. I gravitated toward the zingers first (on Creed's Love in Black: "Such is the sheer volume of this accord that it causes olfactory illusions, like the weird clicks one hears in an ambulance horn up close, and one ends up smelling incongruous things like cup noodles and linseed oil. Ah, I know why the ambulance is there: iris just suffered a disfiguring car crash"). But the more I read, the more I appreciated the compact precision of their writing, and the way they can load a sentence with both information and comedy: "Jean-François Laporte was, as always, far ahead of his time in 1978 when he grabbed the wrist of whoever was weighing out the candyfloss (ethylmaltol) in his new vanillic amber and forced in ten times more than anyone had ever dared."
As you might expect, they resort to non-scent comparisons a lot, in part because describing perfumes in terms of other perfumes is only funny or meaningful if the reader catches the reference. On Thierry Mugler's Angel Pivoine, for instance: "This together-at-last fragrance pits Giant Transvestite against Ditzy Blonde from Hell." On examining the review of Angel proper, it turns out that that's the giant transvestite: "Although Angel is sold as a gourmand for girls, spoken of as if it were a fudge-dipped berry in a confectioner's shop, it's all lies. Look out for Angel's Adam's apple: a handsome, resinous, woody patchouli straight out of the pipes-and-leather-slippers realm of men's fragrance, in a head-on collision with a bold blackcurrant (Neocaspirene) and a screechy white floral." I can barely even count the metaphors in that passage, but I can actually imagine the scent they're describing. That takes some doing.
I'm also glad to see that Turin and Sanchez are what some music-critic types would call "poptimists" in discussing what my own cultural biases tell me would have to be one of the most aristocratic of media: Tommy Girl, for instance, gets five stars, and Turin's review notes that "no fragrance in recent memory has suffered more for being affordable." I gather from Sanchez's introduction, "How to Connect Your Nose to Your Brain"--which is actually labeled as an "Introduction to Perfume Criticism," and describes some of the difficulties of critically assessing perfume in the first place--that there's not a lot of other perfume criticism in print, and that there is nonetheless a huge and contentious online fragrance underground. (Of course.) I don't have enough interest in perfume itself to try to track their contemporaries down--although I suspect I will probably jot down a few brand names to sniff the next time I'm at a department store. Mostly, I'm impressed with the wit and specificity of Turin and Sanchez's writing, and if in fact they're among the inventors of an entire division of criticism, I'm even more impressed.